A Different Kind of Justice

Novelist and public defender Natashia Deon talks about how the same story can reveal different truths.

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I first heard Natashia Deon read from her novel Grace six years ago. She stood at the podium in full silence for 30 seconds, encouraging all of us to lean a little bit closer to her, to listen. And when she finally began reading, I am not exaggerating when I say that I heard people gasp.

Grace is now a novel out in the world. It follows the life histories of three women — an enslaved woman, her daughter, and a Jewish woman, set in the antebellum and post-Emancipation South, a period that most Americans know nothing about but that we point to again and again as proof of American progress. It is an exploration of race, memory, trauma, and joy.

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In addition to being a writer, Natashia is a public defender. A few months ago she wrote an extraordinary essay about defending a man accused of sexual assault. It's a meditation on accountability and historical amnesia and a call to action to reconcile with our nation's traumatic past and troubled present that I've come back to again and again.

I spoke to Natashia the day after the shootings in Orlando and a week after the Brock Turner verdict. Our conversation ranged from writing to questions of morality and justice. It's cheesy to say this, but Natashia speaks with love — not in the Hallmark sense of the word, but in the way the word is used in the New Testament and in the speeches of Dr. King — as a lens to view the world, as a measure of reason.

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Kaitlyn Greenidge: Can you talk about how this book came to be?

Natashia Deon: My son was born with a rare genetic condition that affected his brain and development. He wasn't immediately diagnosed. But instinctively, I knew something was wrong and I was afraid he would die. At one point before his diagnosis, I was walking down the hallway holding him, and I had a vision. It was nighttime. I was in the woods in Alabama. [I saw] the moon there and a girl running in a yellow dress. It had blood on it and she was pregnant, and I knew she was a slave. I could hear her. I knew she was afraid and that shortly after giving birth she had been shot and killed.

I was standing in my hallway frozen, and I told my husband to take my son. I needed to write down what I saw, which became the opening of the novel. The rest didn't come like that, but that's how it started. I remember thinking, Now what do I do? I'd been given this story from wherever stories come from, wherever imagination comes from. I knew that I had to write it. But I left it. Then, six months later, a friend of my mom's, a former prostitute who was Jewish, died. I knew then what the rest of the book was about.

KG: How do you see writing and the idea of justice aligning?

ND: That's one of the things that I grapple with in Grace because I don't believe there's justice when somebody is killed. Justice is restoration, it's giving them back what they lost. If you steal $100 from me, we go to court, you have to give me my $100 back. When somebody dies, you can't get that person back. All you can do is punish. It doesn't actually feel like real justice even when it's carried out. It's a sort of revenge that comes out of another definition of justice, a place where justice is decided based on what seems fair. A life sentence for a fourteen-year-old boy who commits an armed robbery and someone dies? Twenty-five years to life for a mom, like a client I had who walked out of Costco with $503 worth of unpaid groceries because her children were hungry? It was her third strike after two other strikes in her late-teen years.

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KG: How does being able to construct our own stories work toward an idea of justice?

ND: I had a client who, in the 1950s or '60s, walked into the bathroom at a park and had a consensual sexual encounter with a man, which was an illegal act at that time in Los Angeles. He was convicted of a felony.

When I met him, he said, "I'm 80 years old, my wife passed away. I don't want to die a felon. I want to live the life that I was meant to live." I wanted to represent that man. I wanted to retell his story and rewrite a record that referred to him in unflattering terms. And we won. The crime was erased from his record; he got several of his rights back, including the right to vote. There was rightness in this case for me for many reasons.

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KG: Do you think being a novelist makes you a better lawyer?

ND: No, I think it makes me weaker. Not in my skill level or passion or ability as a lawyer, but as a person. It hurts my spirit sometimes. No matter who I represent, I'm zealous. It's what every client deserves. It's what I would want. And I usually win. But sometimes, there will be cases that hurt me. Maybe more so because I am a novelist. I can empathize with everybody at the same time. Like a lot of writers, we have a special relationship with empathy. We have to step inside our characters all of the time and understand something. Maybe not every writer carries that over from the page to real life. I do.

KG: How have people in your workplace and church reacted to your writing?

ND: Well, I go to a big church and was once invited to read a difficult piece about police brutality, and I said "Stop killing us." This is a community of many police officers and their families.

KG: What happened in the moment after you read that essay?

ND: You know, it was a variety ... In this country (and others), there's such a divide on political issues. There is a well-financed interest in keeping people divided and distracted. Most people are on one of two sides of any issue. But really there are more than two choices or three. For me, it's about dignity and decency and a right to live as we chose.

I show up and hold a part of that rope, too, to be a bridge if I can. Make it a little bit easier. I don't feel that there are enough active bridges. But I understand the anger that makes people want to burn them down.

To be a bridge, you have to shun injustice and at the same time be able to hold two ideas in your mind at the same time. That there's truth on both sides. Maybe it's true that that officer was in fear for his life, and maybe it's true that that innocent man should have never been killed. It's difficult for those on one side to see the rationale of the other. Or conclude the same thing. And I believe we can do something to change that.

The thing about the legal system and about politics is that the laws are created by whoever is in power at that time. Period. You lose power, somebody else takes it, and the tables turn.

KD: Where does your sense of self come from?

ND: Letting go. On days I remember that it's not about me, I feel like all I have to do is stand on my mark and deliver the words or actions. I stand on my mark and deliver whatever I'm there to say or do. And not every day is a delivery day. Some days it's just walking alone and getting there. Or fighting off our own jealousies or shame or loss. The best way to find clarity is by serving others. That time won't be lost because whatever we do selflessly will remain. If not for this time, for some future.

Kaitlyn Greenidge's novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman was published in March. She lives in Brooklyn and can be found on Twitter and Instagram @kkgreenidge.

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